Anyone who knows Michael Douglas best as the predatory, macho Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St movies will be startled by his transformation in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra.
Douglas is far from obvious casting as Liberace but he gives a quite wonderful performance as the flamboyant pianist who died of an Aids-related illness in 1987. Douglas captures brilliantly Liberace’s showmanship and outrageous camp qualities as well as the darker side of his character without ever lapsing into caricature.
In normal circumstances, the critics in Cannes would be talking up Douglas' Oscar prospects. However, Behind The Candelabra was made by HBO and will be on TV in the US in late May (although it is being released in cinemas elsewhere.)
Matt Damon is equally striking as Scott Thorson, the young would-be vet who becomes Liberace’s lover and assistant.
This is a gay love story with barbs – one reason why the Hollywood studios were reluctant to back the project. Soderbergh doesn’t skimp from depicting the sexual side of the relationship between the old performer and his handsome young acolyte. On some levels, the Liberace he shows here is a monstrous figure, not unlike the many British media personalities from the 70s whose private lives have been generating so much scandal lately. Liberace preys on young men, exchanging his lovers regularly. All the while, his publicists tell the world that Norwegian ice skater/Hollywood star Sonia Henie was the love of his life and that he is still waiting for the right woman to come along.
Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay (based on Thorson’s own memoir) follows a very predictable trajectory. Liberace and Scott meet and fall in love. They live the high life. Then the relationship begins to sour. The sex loses its spark. At Liberace’s behest, Scott has plastic surgery. He also begins to take drugs. We know, as soon as Liberace first sets eyes on his “young Adonis,” just how matters are likely to end.
What stops this being just another bleak story of celebrity excess is the Liberace-like zest with which Soderbergh tackles his material. The American director is frequently announcing his retirement from filmmaking but with HBO as backers, he seems to have rediscovered the delight in the medium that made him such a distinctive filmmaker in the first place. He choreographs the scenes showing Liberace’s Vegas shows with a Busby Berkeley-like relish and recreates 70s, disco-era America with wit and energy. He is helped by very vivid character performances that – like the two leads – are comic without becoming crass. We have a supremely sleazy Rob Lowe as Doctor Jack Startz, the narcissistic cosmetic surgeon with the unbuttoned shirt and big lapels who offers Liberace and Scott his version of eternal youth. Dan Aykroyd has an Alan Klein-like quality as Liberace’s ruthless manager. Meanwhile, the sweetly malevolent Debbie Reynolds (all those years on from Singing In The Rain) looks as if she’s on leave from The Ladykillers as Liberace’s mom.
Behind The Candelabra delves into troubling territory. There are many disquieting elements (the graphic plastic surgery sequences, the increasingly vicious rows, the fall out from onset of the Aids era.) Even so, this is - its darker passages notwithstanding - a wildly enjoyable ride that ends in suitably (and quite literally) uplifting style.
Video: Michael Douglas cries at Cannes